Film Review: Border

11 March 19 words: Ian C. Douglas

Are you human? Can you be sure? And what's your definition of humanity? Swedish movie Border delves into these questions and comes up with some pretty murky answers...

Director: Ali Abbasi

Starring: Eva Melander, Eero Milonoff

Running time: 110 mins

Border is a dark and weird film that follows the life of Tina, a customs officer at the local ferry port. As soon as we see Tina, we know she is different. She resembles, to put it politely, a Neanderthal. But shes good at her job. Very good. Her superhuman sense of smell enables her to sniff out arrivals up to no good. Those passengers who are smuggling drugs, booze or worse. Tina lives with her disinterested husband who showers all his affections on his prize-winning dogs. And, conveniently, they live deep in a forest, miles from any potentially prying eyes.

The inciting incident is the disembarkation of a man, (we think) who has that same skipped-a-million-years-of-evolution look as Tina. This sends her olfactory nerves into overload, as they recognise each other as kindred spirits. Their friendship blossoms as the newcomer, named Vore, leads her on a path of self-discovery. The press is calling their friendship transgressive in as far as they eat bugs, talk dark ideas, and have some very strange ways of making love. 

Meanwhile, things are looking up for Tina at work, as she is seconded into an investigation into child sexual exploitation, and in particular, babies. No prizes for guessing the investigation is going to end up closer to Tinas home than she ever imagined.

The movie is billed as horror, but dark urban fantasy would be a better tag. The plot has elements of an updated fairy tale, and dips into Scandinavian lore, but there are no chills or scares. Admittedly, the bug-eating is hard to watch. More importantly, this is a study of what it is be different. Or to put it another way, what it is to be, or not be, human. Tina and Vore are described as having a chromosome flaw. The same thing that used to be said about people with congenital disabilities. But is it a flaw, or just a difference? See the movie and decide for yourself.  

The pacing is slow. As slow as some of the bugs they snack on.

A lot of the story takes place in the woods, and perhaps that is symbolic of something. And this is where Tina and Vore consummate their newfound affection in what must be the most peculiar sex scene ever filmed. Be warned, this is not for the fainthearted. Tina discovers a secret about her body that is as big a surprise to her as it is to the audience.

The movie stars Eva Melander as Tina, a role for which she was Oscar nominated, and Eero Milonoff as Vore. Their performances are compelling and one of the movies strengths. Both are under a ton of prosthetics, yet convey by expression alone, a gamut of emotions. In Tinas case, hurt, confusion, anger and sympathy, in Vores, menace. He is one real creepy dude. The prosthetics, by the way, are very convincing, even in the many close-ups. The pacing is slow. As slow as some of the bugs they snack on. Not unusual for a European movie, free of the Hollywood template. In the second hour, the plot heats up as both Tinas flowering and the investigation gather momentum.

Now, about the child sex exploitation. Something that rightly scares and offends us all. And for that reason, becoming the go to evil in movies wanting to display their real life credentials. But was it necessary in this movie? Are there some topics that are too sensitive to be used in entertainment? It could have just as easily been trafficking, murder, drug running, ideological terrorism. Babies are key to the plot, in a way that cannot be described without giving away spoilers, but the narrative could have been written without using the rape of children as part of the shock value. Thankfully, all that happens off-screen.  

This is the second movie from Ali Abbasi, an Iranian director based in Sweden. If nothing else, this movie is strikingly original, superbly filmed, and embraces transgender identity. It is not afraid to lift the stone and see what ugliness lies beneath. Although the films message is one persons ugliness is anothers beauty. Expect great things from Abbasi in the future.    

Did you know? Official submission of Sweden for the 'Best Foreign Language Film' category of the 91st Academy Awards in 2019.

Border is screening at Broadway Cinema until Thursday 14 March